Power, Money and Morals

Monday 30 March 2015

The following presentation was given at the Australian Nursing and Midwifery Federation (Vic branch) Health and Environment Conference in March 2015 by CAHA Executive Director, Fiona Armstrong. Below is a transcript of her speech and the slides from the presentation:

Power, money, and morals - threats to our life supports

This afternoon I'm going to talk about power, money and morals “ as threats to our life support systems.

I hope that resonates with you as nurses and midwives, and that in your roles as nurses and midwives you feel compelled to respond to the threat that power and money and morals (or a lack thereof) poses to the biosphere “ that is, the life support systems on which we and all other species depend.

So I'm talking about power in the sense of energy (electricity or gas or oil) and power in the sense of political / corporate / societal power.

When I talk about money, I'm talking about the finances that are invested in power (all forms of it) and support the current structures of power in all senses, and when I talk about morals, I'm talking about the values that underpin the struggle to save the biosphere and the failure of political, corporate and to be honest, civil society leaders as well, to assume the ethical responsibilities that come with leadership.

In beginning with power, I'm going to name to the major villain “ by no means the only “ but the single biggest driver of climate change and as such, one of the greatest threat to the biosphere, coal.

Coal has made a major contribution to the development of human civilisation, but its days are over and its pursuit as an energy source in the 21st century is dangerous and potentially suicidal for our species and akin to the murder of others.

The case is very clear: we cannot burn coal in Australia anymore.

We can't burn coal anymore if the world is to have a better than 50% chance of avoiding global warming of more than 2 degrees “ a level scientists say is itself not safe.

Right now, we're on track for 4-6 degree rise in the lifetimes of our children “ both a level and a rate of temperature rise completely unprecedented during the period of human civilisation.

A rise that is happening too fast for many species to adapt to.

To stop the temperatures rise, we have to stop producing greenhouse gases.

Not talk about it, not argue about it.


We now know there is a limited amount of greenhouse gases that can be produced if we are avoid global warming going beyond a level that may lead to non-linear, exponential and irreversible warming.

That's good “ we've got a number to work with.

The global carbon budget (as it is known) tells us how many gigatonnes of CO2 we've got left before we push things too, too far.

But given we've already gone too far, we need to be careful.

And we need to decide who gets to produce those last few emissions.

Should it be us, who have already contributed over the last 150 years to global warming, and produce almost 20 tonnes of CO2 per person per year? Should we get a bigger share than Brazil, who produce just 1/6 our emissions per person? Or India, who produce about two tonnes per person per year? Is it fair, to say we want to burn more than our fair share of coal? What right do we have to produce more emissions than other nations who are also seeking to develop their economies, lift their people out of poverty, and provide jobs? So that's one of the issues around morals, and ethics and fairness.

Another is: what right do politicians have to ignore scientific evidence on climate change? Ethicist and lawyer Donald Brown from Widener University in the US wrote recently, "although ordinary individuals may have no duty to go beyond their own personal opinion about the science of climate change, government officials who have the power to enact policies that could prevent catastrophic harm to millions of people around the world may not as a matter of ethics justify their refusal to support policies to reduce the threat of climate change on the basis of their uninformed opinions on climate science." If your MP says "I don't support policies to prevent dangerous climate change" because "I don't believe climate change is occurring" or "I'm not sure climate change is human caused", this position is not only unscientific, its also unethical and unjustifiable.

Elected members of the parliament have a responsibility to rely on evidence, not their own opinion when it comes to making decisions about policy.

Particularly when those decisions, as they do when it comes to climate and energy policy, as Donald says, have the power to affect the health and lives of millions of people around the world.

Why are politicians so persuaded by industry arguments that they might ignore the repeated warnings of scientists? Why, for example, did Tony Abbott say in October of last year that: "coal is good for humanity?" It was straight out of the coal industry songbook.

As journalist Graham Readfearn wrote, those words would have had the champagne corks popping out of bottles in coal company boardrooms around the world.

In the lead-up to the G20 in Brisbane last year, while esteemed health scientists were writing open letters in the pages of the Medical Journal of Australia imploring the Prime Minister to put climate change on the agenda of the G20, the coal industry was pouring money into a PR campaign called Advanced Energy for Life.

 This campaign was aimed at influencing world leaders to join the industry in a newfound passion for "fighting energy poverty". The world's biggest coal company, Peabody Energy, teamed up with the world's biggest PR company Burson-Marsteller, whose previous work includes trying to discredit the science around harm to health from tobacco. This campaign suggests that without access to coal, the developed world will forever be consigned to poverty. In an extraordinary display of hubris, and to be frank, lies, they even claim: "coal is key to human health and welfare, along with a clean environment."

As well as funding PR campaigns to try and deflect attention from the harm caused by coal to human health and climate change, the fossil fuel energy sector has actively funded think tanks and so-called scientists to try and discredit the evidence around climate change, pretend that gas is a clean energy (it's not), and suggest renewable energy is not up to task.

They have been busy offering political donations to secure policies that privilege their industries and acting to destroy the renewable energy sector that poses a threat to their profits.

Climate denier scientist Willie Soon for example received 100% of his research grants between 2002 and 2010 from fossil fuel interests.

Australian coal lobby groups the Minerals Council and the Coal Association were part of an industry alliance that spent $8 million lobbying against the carbon tax, because it would create a financial disincentive to pollute, precisely what it was intended to do.

The ironically named New Hope coal company donated $700,000 to the Liberal National party in Qld just before the last election “ a move many consider to be a bid to secure approval for the expansion of their controversial New Acland coal near Toowoomba.

It was approved just weeks before the Qld election, a mine that has already destroyed the village of Acland, caused considerable suffering for its last remaining resident, and over the lifetime of the mine, will cause many illnesses and deaths from the pollution it produces, and the global warming it will help accelerate (7.5Mtpa to 2029).

Eleven people died last year when the disused Hazelwood coal mine caught fire in the hat of the summer, cloaking the town of Morwell in a thick toxic cloud of smoke and ash for more than a month.

Coal causes million of dollars a year in health damages, and hundreds of billions of dollars in global damages.

Our recent report Coal and Health in the Hunter: Lessons from One Valley for the World estimated that current coal production in the Hunter Valley is responsible for climate damages of between $16-66 billion per annum.

Just days after our report was released it was revealed the NSW government was working with the industry to pave the way to approve an additional 16 open cut mines, to join the 30 odd already in operation, without health impact assessment, without community consultation, without any assessment of the global harm they would cause.

So what is at stake here? What are these life support systems, how are they at risk, and who says so? In 1992, 1,700 of the world's leading scientists, including the majority of Nobel Laureates in the sciences, wrote an appeal entitled ˜World Scientists Warning to Humanity'.

It said: "Human beings and the natural world are on a collision course.

Human activities inflict harsh and often irreversible damage on the environment and on critical resources.

If not checked, many of our current practices put at serious risk the future that we wish for human society and the plant and animal kingdoms, and may so alter the living world that it will be unable to sustain life in the manner that we know.

Fundamental changes are urgent if we are to avoid the collision our present course will bring about." Last year, an international group of ecologists and biologists released their findings from a study which suggests we are now much closer to that collision.

Stuart Pimm from Duke University said: "When you look at the range of unsustainable things that we are doing to the planet, changing the atmosphere, global warming, massively depleting fisheries, driving species to extinction, we realize that we have a decade or two." One of the consequences of failing to act is what climate scientist Michael Mann calls the procrastination penalty: "the longer we wait, the harder it will be".

And it will be much more expensive.

Mitigating climate change (that is cutting emissions, moving to a low carbon economy) now will be much cheaper than if we wait.

But in terms of species loss, as they say, extinction is forever.

So how do we respond, and where in the world are people and governments responding? Well, the good news is that the shift to the green economy is well underway.

Industries based on green growth are now outperforming other asset classes and investments in extractive industries and fossil fuels are fast becoming a liability or worse, stranded assets.

People, communities, cities, businesses, and some nations are responding.

Energy producing, rather than energy consuming homes, are emerging.

Zero carbon buildings, transport and energy systems are now possible.

Local, chemical free, ethically produced and organic food systems are springing up.

The health sector is responding “ over 10,000 hospitals and health services are now member of the Global Green and Healthy Hospitals network.

Over ten health systems in Australia are now members, with over 40 major hospitals, and approximately 100 other health services, working together to reduce their carbon and environmental footprint.

We also need to develop what the human ecologist Stephen Boyden describes as "biosensitive" societies, that is, a society which is sensitive to the biological needs of all living systems, and recognises their interdependence.

The emphasis on "rewilding" in children's education, and exposing them more to nature is part of the effort to redevelop this.

Educator and author Richard Heinberg from the Post Carbon Institute wrote recently about energy revolution that's underway.

He says: "Industrial ecology, biomimicry, "cradle-to-cradle" manufacturing, local food, voluntary simplicity, permaculture, and green building are just a few of the strategies have emerged" that are part of the transition.

Importantly many people are refusing to accept that the continuation of the current political failure is inevitable or acceptable; we are seeing increasing levels of political engagement across many sectors; people are organizing, speaking out, and taking action.

Look at the powerful example of the Lock the Gate movement that has made coal seam gas a key election issue in NSW.

Take my colleague Professor Colin Butler, an internationally respected public health researcher, contributor to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, who is so affronted by Australia's ludicrous, dangerous and irresponsible decisions about coal that he resorted to direct action and was arrested obstructing the efforts of Whitehaven coal to clear native threatened woodlands to develop a coal mine in the Leard Forest in NSW.

Colin is practicing what he preaches “ he and I, along with Professor Peter Sainsbury, are the authors of a paper recently published in the Australian and New Zealand Journal of Public Health in which we conclude, in the face of unbridled corporate power risking our collective future, where parliaments have become an evidence free zone, and politicians are for sale, civil disobedience is now necessary.

It's not for everyone.

But there is a role for everyone in reclaiming our democracy, for refusing to allow absurdly short term and ultimately self-destructive gains to be pursued when the costs are so great and the stakes are so high.

I'm talking to all you here when I say: "Don't look the other way".

Democracy, defending the future, and fighting injustice and greed is everyone's job, and it's particularly the job of people who are instinctively drawn to the caring professions, who care about fairness, equity and understand intergenerational responsibility.

Slavery wasn't abolished, and women's rights didn't come about, by people waiting nicely for someone else to do the right thing.

They had to be fought for.

As members of a union, you are very well positioned to organise, and to confront these threats with collective power.

If unions decided to make climate action an issue, governments would be unable to avoid acting to respond.

As an organisation you can be part of building the social movement that demands political responses commensurate with the task at hand.

A low carbon and healthy future is desirable, achievable with current technologies and budgets, in the timeframe that's necessary.

And it's possible.

But we'll have to fight for it.

Let's make sure we can look our children and our grandchildren in the eye and say we didn't stand back.

Or look the other way.

Let's make their future safe, and pass on a world we are proud to say we fought to protect.


Download slides: Power, money and morals- threats to our life support systems ANMF 20 March 2015